The couch in the Jordan River was a surprise.
No, it was worse than that; it was downright obscene. I’d had an appointment with God for months, from the moment I’d received my itinerary. A holy moment on my calendar, penned in permanent ink.
And now I stood along the upper reaches of the Jordan, my heart all ready to hear angel-song, ready for the white dove to swoop down. Our guides had made a special point to take us somewhere remote, far from the Baptismal theme park to the south, where great crowds in screenprinted gowns file in, one after the other, gripping the metal railings, taking dripping selfies.
We didn’t have any of that; we had a couch half-submerged in the middle of the river. The skull and crossbones spraypainted on its back side peeped above the waterline, a pirate flag where I least expected to find one. And, as with all pirate invasions, my morning was invaded, robbed of sparkly holiness, re-routed. I noticed all the trash at my feet, littering the bank. Several yards from the clearing, a makeshift shed sheltered a set of battered plastic chairs. Local boys splashed and shouted around a bend, to a soundtrack of Arabic pop. Our guide glared at them and tried to get their attention, to no avail.
It was early but the sun was stinging hot. I’d incorrectly assumed God could manage the ambiance, and had left my hat on the bus. I imagined blisters forming where my hair parted.
What I felt at that moment wasn’t anger. It wasn’t cynicism. It wasn’t even disappointment. I’d come seven thousand miles for this, I’d cashed out my vacation savings and even dipped into my touch-me-not money, and now God had stood me up. I felt…empty.
If I hadn’t been part of a group, I might have knelt down in the mud and trash, thinking God needed more supplication or something. But the service started right away. In unison we read a vow off a laminated page. One of the priests dipped a bundle of olive branches in the river and flung the droplets out over our heads. Yes, we’ll gather at the river, we sang, that flows by the throne of God.
And then we were done. Someone joked under their breath that they hadn’t expected the throne of God to be a soggy couch.
Without a moment’s pause, we collectively began filling empty bottles, every last one of us eager to carry home water from this allegedly sacred river. The impulse to collect or try to preserve something spiritual — either with or without having really experienced it — was a tendency I observed in myself and others time and again during my trip to the Holy Land. What was I bottling but couch-water?
As we prepared to leave, my priest sidled up to me, smiling. “It’s been there every time I’ve come,” he said, nodding at the couch. “I had a hard time with it at first.” And then he walked away, leaving me to wonder at his decision to return here, year after year with groups of pilgrims. What was he trying to teach us? He’d fully expected the couch, and his face shone with mischievous glee.
Maybe the emptiness I felt was the point. Maybe, paradoxically, God is there in Their own absence.
Or maybe it’s less complicated than that. Maybe it’s some kind of lesson about finding God where I least expect to, or not finding God because I expect to, or not recognizing God because They’re kicking it on a nasty couch in the middle of the river.
More probably, it’s a challenge to my idea of beautiful.
But I don’t know yet. All that was less than a week ago, and I’ve touched other relics since then. I’ve traveled seven thousand more miles, back home and back to work. That couch is still lodged in the center of me, a symbol I don’t yet understand.
But, having been on pilgrimage before, I know that meaning sometimes takes years to emerge, rising like steam from my memories, and the pages of my travel journal. Until that happens, I resolve to bless the couch, if only because, the further away I get from that moment, the funnier it gets. God pranked me.
I’m trying to let go and laugh about it.
Because even though my meeting with God didn’t go exactly as planned, They didn’t totally leave me hanging.
See, we weren’t supposed to go in the water that day, but I rolled up my pants and waded in anyway. The river moved slow and cool around my knees. It wasn’t blue, but it felt blue, the color of the snowmelt that nourished it. For a half-second I thought I felt God in that coolness, the way the prophet Elijah had heard God in the gentle breeze. Thousands of years ago, on a mountain not far from where I stood, he’d also witnessed the absence of God, in an earthquake and a fire and a raging wind, the same destructive forces we still try to find God in. “Why are you here?” God had asked him.
On the way back to the bus we passed a man standing by the trunk of his car, wearing a t-shirt and the world’s tiniest swim trunks. The man waved his hands at us, grinning crookedly, dancing. He seemed drunk or crazy. But people thought that about the prophets too, and I’m reminded once again that I don’t know what God looks like. They’re the ultimate shape-shifter. No wonder I don’t often recognize Them.